Stoically shivering in the bitter cold, they lined up behind the flag bearers at a corner of the Champs Elysées. Some wore medals on their winter coats. A few had canes. Others listed a bit to the side. All were in their 80s.
But this was a memorial service not to be missed, regardless of the weather or creaking bones. It was the 60th anniversary of the death of General Philippe Leclerc, the man who liberated Paris on a warm August day in 1944.
America unhesitatingly glorifies its World War II vets as the "greatest generation" in books and films. But wartime history is a more complicated affair for France, which was occupied by Nazi Germany. Its memories are more nuanced. Not many figures from that time have lent themselves to mythmaking.
The exception is General Leclerc, the iconoclastic career soldier who stands as one of the few national war heroes whose memory was never sullied by France's bitter postwar politics.
The elderly men and women who served under him so many years ago now take pains to honor him when the occasion arises.
So on Wednesday evening, police officers stopped rush-hour traffic around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Shoppers and tourists paused under twinkling holiday lights to watch. Solemnly, the 40 or so veterans marched to the massive war memorial, relit the eternal flame dedicated to France's soldiers, and laid a wreath in memory of Leclerc, who was killed in a plane crash 60 years ago Wednesday.
"I was sad when he was taken from us," said Danielle Heintz, a lively former ambulance driver in the general's storied Second Armored Division. "But he was taken when he was in his full glory. So he stayed a hero, pure and with his laurels intact."
An independent-minded soldier
Mrs. Heintz was one of the intrepid French and American women ambulance drivers known as the Rochambelles – a feminized name taken in tribute to a certain Comte de Rochambeau, a French infantry commander who fought alongside American troops in the American Revolution.
General Leclerc took them on, despite his misgivings about using women in combat zones, because they came with a fleet of their own spanking-new American ambulances.
"It was all or nothing so in the end he had to take us women, too," said Mrs. Heintz, who recounts the story several times a year in French schools. "He said, 'Come as far as Paris,' and then in Paris, he told us that all the men admired our courage."
Leclerc was one of the first French officers to join General Charles de Gaulle and his Free French forces in London after the French Army was overrun by the Germans in 1941. After the D-Day landings of Allied troops in Normandy, Leclerc's stitched-together division was transported to France and accompanied American troops as they moved toward Paris.
There, on the outskirts of the occupied capital, the general grabbed his moment of fame. The Americans wanted to bypass Paris and move east. General Leclerc wanted his French troops to liberate it. He bulldozed ahead, which only added to his luster in French eyes.
"He acted in an independent manner and that certainly personifies France in the world, up until today," says Ellen Hampton, whose 2006 book, "Women of Valor," told the story of the women ambulance drivers who won Leclerc's trust.
Tributes to a hero
After his death, the French military named a battle tank after Leclerc. The magazine "Tintin" honored him by creating a 65-episode cartoon strip around his exploits. Almost every town in France has an "Avenue du General Leclerc" and in 1994, a museum dedicated to Leclerc opened in Paris, even though General de Gaulle himself does not have a national museum bearing his name.
These days, the French still regularly write books about the war and each anniversary of victory is celebrated. But instead of American-style individual hero worship, public debate tends to impassioned arguments over who resisted, who collaborated, and who tried to profit politically from the disarray afterwards.
The last French film based on World War II was the 2006 "Indigènes," released in English as "Days of Glory." It told the story of Arab volunteers from French colonies in North Africa and the racism they experienced in the French Army.
"We lived the war. We lived the occupation," said Annie Maubert, a grandmother who brought her neighbor's 7-year-old son to the ceremony Wednesday. "At one point, my children used to ask me about it. But my grandchildren don't, and that is a real shame."